Cuba: Tearing Down Schools, Putting Up Hotels

Rogelio Manuel Díaz Moreno

The Manzana de Gomez building in Old Havana. Photo:

HAVANA TIMES — The first time I ever set foot in the Manzana de Gomez walkway in Havana’s old town, it wasn’t to buy anything at one of its ground-floor shops. I couldn’t have done that even if I’d wanted to at the time, the height of Cuba’s interminable “Special Period” (economic crisis of the 90s). If memory serves me right, even holding hard currency was still illegal in the country.

The first time I ever set foot in the Manzana de Gomez, it was to take part in a school competition (probably having to do with Physics), of the kind organized by the educational system around the country.

For many years, the building housed a number of schools, theatres, editorial offices and other cultural establishments, such as the Latin American Culture Institute, chaired by renowned intellectual Fernando Ortiz.

The building was constructed over a broad span of time, between 1890 and 1918, and was primarily financed by the wealthy Gomez-Mena family. Since its completion, it has been one of Havana’s emblematic public sites. The passage of time and lack of maintenance have resulted in serious structural damage.

Thanks to a dispatch published by Prensa Latina, I have just found out that the building is going to be turned into a 500-bedroom hotel. I suspect they’re going to conserve the building’s façade, out of respect for the city’s architectural heritage, history and all that, which historian and entrepreneur Eusebio Leal Spengler knows how to manage so well. It’s rather painful to think that, to do this, they will have to relocate the schools there.

To tell the truth, the building has been in such a deplorable state for so long that the schools may have been closed, and the students relocated to other institutions in the area some time ago. Ultimately, this was also the fate of the Faculty of Physics at the University of Havana, and of thousands of other buildings – schools, residences, medical centers and factories that deteriorated to the point of becoming uninhabitable, deadly traps where no few souls perished.

The resources needed to repair them never did turn up, while no shortage of these was squandered in other places of dubious social usefulness.

Now, if it’s a hotel we’re talking about, then there’s plenty of money to spend. Every good capitalist knows that, in order to make money, you need to invest money. Perhaps the University of Havana steps will one day lead to the entrance of another pretty hotel, which will prove more profitable than a place where Maxwell’s equations are taught. Perhaps the Pedro Borras Hospital will someday be made into a golf resort, who knows.

I doubt anyone consulted with the community, with the parents, teachers or workers of the Manzana de Gomez, before deciding the building’s new destiny. In any event, if someone has any information in this connection, do share it. Though no one will be left without an education, the boys and girls of these schools, who are to continue their Math, Spanish and History studies elsewhere, will walk away with a slightly bitter lesson: that a place of learning is ultimately expendable.

13 thoughts on “Cuba: Tearing Down Schools, Putting Up Hotels

  • Thanks Rogelio for posting this article. Although this is not aimed specifically
    towards discussing preservation, it is good to see that this building shall be
    restored to something close to its former glory.

    Eusebio Leal has demonstrated in the past how profits from these enterprises can be used to supplement funds for educational facilities elsewhere. I hope that this shall be the case for this building also.

    For those who have commented that it is more “economical” to level these buildings rather than to restore, I believe that Havana is one of the last bastions of colonial heritage in the world that has been left mostly untouched by the capitalist wrecking ball and for that reason surely Havana is the exception to this rule. You only have to look at every capitalist based city around the world that a massive amount of cultural heritage has been wiped out since the 1950’s. My only concern is that this building due to its size, shall soak up a huge amount of restoration funds that could otherwise be used to restore the shattered buildings around it.

    As for the various comments regarding the Capitalist/Communist debate, I find it
    ironic that this city’s buildings were built under Capitalist/non-Communist
    (and corruption of course) rule. Then somewhat preserved via neglect under Communist rule. Now Capitalist methods are being used to help maintain and
    rebuild what is left. A strange series of events throughout this city’s history.

    If anyone knows where I can find an updated link to Eusebio Leal’s projects, this would be great as I love to be up do date on the restoration efforts of Havana.

  • Bravo for Eusebio Leal. To make money you have to invest it, THAT’S CORRECT and to have children in a school that is falling apart is of benefit to no one, your attitude has to change if Cuba is going to move away from that paternalistic-regueton mentality.This is the route that Cuba has to take,join the world economy,on its terms, the USA won’t let it be so,so ONWARDS !!!……y la dirigencia tiene que actualizarse un poco.Permitir el internet y dejar de joder !! Idolatro a Eusebio Leal.Te hablo como hijo de cubanos, soy neoyorquino y voy a Cuba a menudo y hace 31 años.Ya era hora que este triste edifício tan emblemático habanero volviera a ser algo.Ojalá lo hagan con mínima intrusión yanqui !! Y no soy pro ningún gobierno,SOY MARTIANO,BIEN PRO CUBA y a la mierda EEUU.

  • Hey, Rogelio, hello from NYC! My name is Drew Simels. I’m asking out of ignorence and curiosity; i.e., I have no family relationship with your current. Is the current situation in Cuba a better one for most people in the society, or, beautiful. Hopefully, there are other buildingto the “Special Period”, do you say the two situations are roughly the same? I’m guessing that the Party Leadership has decided that these refurbishings are essential for the country, in that they are a way to attract al kinds of visitors; i.e., people who simply want to do their vacation in Cuba and people whose priority is doing b usiness. You make the Manzana de Gomez sound beautiful. Hopefully, there are other buildings that can be converted into schools, colleges, or universities…

  • Please lets get real I know and you know that there are much better schools My grandkids attend a few

  • So …is the Cuban regime now outsourcing blog trolling to their Chinese allies?

  • You have the location correct. I did a bit of searching on the history of this building, and It was originally a shopping mall. It was entirely dedicated to commercial space when it opened in 1910, and only started having other tenants (such as schools) much later. Seems to me in that case, the restoration of the building is also restoring it to something closer to it’s intended purpose as well. An upscale hotel will usually also have upscale shops, restaurants, and services.

  • What is the point in teaching Physics, if waiters and taxi drivers make more money than scientists in Cuba?

    What they really need to tear down is the hopelessly inept and corrupt regime that brought Cuba to this sorry state of affairs. Schools crumble while tourist hotels spring up so foreigners can come and gaze at the island time forgot.

  • Economically, it probably would be better to level and build new in many cases. Historically, not so much.

  • If this building is where I think it is from the picture it is exactly opposite the Parque Central hotel on the other side of the park. If so, that is a crappy location. On all sides are buildings in far worse shape with illegal houses and businesses in very squalid conditions. Restoring this building alone is a good start but if this hotel is to compete with the 3 and 4 star hotels nearby it will have to come with restored adjoining buildings as well. The level of dilapidation and deterioration in Cuba is so bad that it makes you wonder if at times it would be better to just tear some of these buildings down and start all over.

  • Mr. Ling, where might one find an existing “true communist” country after which one can pattern the Cuba of your dreams. And while we are talking about what the world needs, does this communist paradise you envision include free and open elections, an independent media, and the basic right of the people to change their government just in case you are OUT OF YOUR FRICKIN’ MIND!

  • This world needs a free and democratic Cuba. Before Castro – even under the previous dictator Batista – Cuba had a better living standard that most European countries. Communism turned it in to a third world nation.
    Cuba needs no other communist disaster like the “great leap forward”. It needs the steady and solid growth of a democratic nation.

  • They have to move the school anyway due to do the restoration, These kinds of jobs take a long time. You said yourself you don’t even know if the school was even there anymore anyway. You’d have to more to be able to say the hotel is actually displacing an existing school.

    Sounds more like it’s a derelict building that has a chance to get restored. That money has to come from somewhere — it’s VERY expensive to do these things. Heritage buildings linger, rot, and stay vacant for many years all over Canada and the US too — until the right project backed by enough money comes around.

  • Everything in Cuba is revolving around tourism. This is so sad. Cuba will always be corrupt and uneducated with It’s Yankee capitalist dogs. Yes, Fidel and his brother are Yankees because they changed Cuba for their own benefit. This world needs a true communist Cuba!

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